So Much for the Food Truck

In case you haven't heard, the hottest restaurants in Los Angeles aren't even restaurants. No, I'm not talking about "gastropubs" (translation: bars that serve beets). Those are so late summer 2008. You know, back when restaurants didn't move.

These days, brick-and-mortar restaurants are over, not just in L.A., but in many major cities. Now it's all about food trucks. You know, those things you see at construction sites, the ones whose horns chime out "La Cucaracha" or the theme from The Godfather. The roach coach. Well, the roaches have been replaced by kimchi-covered french fries, vegan sausages, and gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches. Even big-name chefs from big-name restaurants are jumping on the band wagon (pun regretfully intended). And you won't find these trucks anywhere near a construction site. In fact, you won't find them at all unless you know how to use Twitter, where the trucks post their locations. Back in the 20th century, if a restaurant wanted to be exclusive, it would just get rid of the sign on its door. Now, just put the joint on wheels. (If this introduction has been painfully remedial to you, please forgive me.)

This is L.A. at its postmodern finest ... and I think I mean that in a bad way, assuming I'm not being ironic (I can no longer tell). It's difficult to find much criticism around this fad. If you do find some, it's mostly people complaining about hipsters swarming on sidewalks to eat organic mercury-free tuna tacos with biodegradable sporks. But hipster-bashing aside, there seems to be an unspoken class issue at play here that is more than troubling. Perhaps it's so obvious that it's not worth mentioning, but have all the implications of the gourmet lunch truck been considered?

The surface appeal of the lunch truck is threefold. (For a longer rundown on the pros of food trucks, see Ross Resnick's Post.) Appeal #1: the food is good, creative, and cheap (kind of). Appeal #2: Lunch trucks are populist. They serve gourmet food in a venue that's "for the people." You know, the workers. Appeal #3: since you never know where a truck is going to be on any given day, finding the food is part of the fun.

Of these three, only Appeal #1 holds up under scrutiny. (Unless, of course, you think chasing your food is fun. If so, I recommend hunting.) So what's the problem? Isn't the food all that matters? Isn't the "for the people" vibe something L.A. desperately needs?

If you consider "the people" to be 20- and 30-somethings with Twitter accounts, then the theory holds up. Only the food truck fad isn't as populist as it seems. In fact, it may be more elitist than so-called "elite" restaurants. You won't be rubbing shoulders with construction workers. These things do lunches at prep schools. Can things get more elite than that?

If you want to eat from the Kogi Truck (the Coke Classic of L.A. Lunch Trucks), either you're going to stumble upon it while you're walking on the street (not likely: no one walks in L.A.) or you have to be In the Know. You have to be cool, I mean like Level Five Twitter Master cool. The lunch trucks' reliance on social networking sites to attract customers destroys much of its faux-populism. I know the Internet is supposed to be the place where democracy and populism rule, but look at it this way: Yes, you don't need a reservation and a sportcoat to eat from a lunch truck, but is the gourmet food truck catering to the same clientele as the roach coach? Isn't part of the point of promoting via Twitter to ensure that some people are kept away ("the people" perhaps?). The same logic is at play in many places in L.A. that appear public but are closer to private, from The Grove to the Annenberg Community Beach House. Simply locating a gourmet food truck already places one above the fray and guarantees that s/he will only encounter people who are equally In the Know or who hope to be included among those In the Know. How is this less elitist than a fancy restaurant in Beverly Hills?

This exclusivity thing isn't anything new, especially in Los Angeles, but the twist comes with the class posing. Again, this is where the "for the people" facade falls apart. While I do appreciate the irony of well-off young people clamoring for food off a roach coach, what if the same idea were applied to other things, like housing? If us youngsters were flipping over lush modern condos that looked like tenements on the outside, complete with authentic-looking actors playing panhandlers and dope fiends, would this still be cool? Or would it be crossing the line? Does the lunch truck fad really serve as a means to express some sort of solidarity with the working class and its "street meat" or does it merely offers the upper class the thrill of appearing blue collar while retaining all the comforts of affluence? If one really wanted to express solidarity with the working class, couldn't s/he simply go to a real roach coach? Or McDonald's? While there's nothing shameful about being working class, what about striking a blue collar pose? And for what? Authenticity? Being In the Know? So much for the food.